Jun 242014

Gorgeous Art Deco lobby ceiling, right? The 28-story building was built in 1928 at Seventh Avenue and 25th Street as the Lefcourt Clothing Center to serve the garment industry. Its builder was Abraham E Lefcourt, who rose from newspaper boy on the Lower East Side to become the Donald Trump of Roaring ’20s Manhattan. He owned 24 buildings, and he grandly affixed his own name to many of them to secure his own reputation.

In 1928, when he was worth $100 million, he made his first foray into construction. The Garment Center was designed by Eli Jacques Kahn (the Costas Kondylis of his day—workmanlike, prolific, essentially uncool) and its touches were designed to impress—Deco became a Lefcourt hallmark—and it mostly served men’s and boys’ clothing manufacturers.

It was such a success he ended up building six more skyscrapers—never allowing people to forget that he used to sell papers on the corner. He even founded his own bank.


And then he lost it all. First, the Depression ruined him. Then, in 1930, his son Alan died of anemia, aged just 17.  Brokenhearted, Lefcourt named his latest building the Lefcourt-Alan Building in his honor. Located north of Times Square on Broadway, it was sanctified with a bronze of his lost boy looking out from a position above its entrance. Continue reading »

May 102014


So I went to Downton Abbey. The people who run it seem to want to call it Highclere Castle. I didn’t see any cannon or dragons or battlements, but if they want to call it a castle, I won’t argue, because they’re rich.

Highclere Castle, which is outside of Newbury, Berkshire, about 90 minutes by train west of London, isn’t open very often. But I get the impression the ancestral owners see some financial advantage to permitting the hoi polloi to traipse through their Secret Garden and grand Gallery in small doses, so they hire out for weddings and set a few open weekends throughout the warmer months. It’s £20 to get in and £10 for a guidebook, which probably wouldn’t pay for a screw in a light plate there, let alone fix a leaky roof from the Georgian period. There are also 1,000 acres of lush rolling English countryside to tend to, which I presume the 8th Earl of Carnarvon mows on a John Deere after the tourists stop smearing their fingers on his carved banisters and go home.

Highclere’s owners, who own it because they were born in the right family, won’t allow any photographs inside, which is odd because they allow TV crews to film for months a year and eat craft services in a tent in the yard and anyone can purchase the Blu-ray of Downton Abbey to see what they’re missing. Continue reading »

Apr 292014

The sculptor Hendrik Andersen: “During one of Henry James’ visits to my studio [in Rome], he noticed a terracotta bust which greatly attracted him. It represented a boy of about twelve, not handsome, but with a look of eager intelligence and underlying melancholy which appealed to him. It was the bust of the young Count Alberto Bevilacqua, a boy of remarkable intelligence and character who used to spend every Saturday—his weekly holiday from school—in my studio, making little boats or reading to me while I worked. I was very strongly drawn to him and, in spite of the difference in our ages, a great attachment sprang up between us. Berto had lost his father and I felt he needed care and guidance. I used to take him with me to the many churches and picture-galleries in Rome and interest him in the great masterpieces of art, noting with delight how quickly he learned to appreciate their beauty and detect the weakness of inferior artists.

Being deeply attached to the boy and understanding him so well, it was a great pleasure to me to model a bust of him and, in Henry James’ opinion, I succeeded in conveying a vivid impression of the ager, enquiring mind and ardent spirit.

Not only did Henry James admire this work, however, but he offered to purchase it at a sum [US$250 in 1899] that enabled me to carry out plans for other work I had in my mind. I shall never forget how grateful I felt for his kindness in buying this little terracotta bust. I was delighted to think that the first purchaser of my work should be a man of such taste and discrimination and at the same time one whose good opinion I valued for personal reasons.”

The young Count Alberto Bevilacqua, a muse of scultor Hendrik Christian Andersen, the special friend of writer Henry James. The bust remains in the home of Henry James, Lamb House, in Rye, England.

The young Count Alberto Bevilacqua, a muse of sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen, the special friend of writer Henry James. The bust remains in the home of Henry James, Lamb House, in Rye, England.

Henry James to Henrik Andersen, three years later, upon the death of Andersen’s brother: “The sense that I can’t help you, see you, talk to you, touch you, hold you close & long, or do anything to make you rest on my, & feel my deep participation – this torments me, dearest boy, makes my ache for you, & for myself; makes me gnash my teeth & groan at the bitterness of things. . . . This is the one thought that relieves me about you a little – & I wish you might fix your eyes on it for the idea, just, of the possibility. I am in town for a few weeks, but return to Rye April 1st, & sooner or later to have you there & do for you, to put my arm round you & make you lean on me as on a brother & a lover, & keep you on & on, slowly comforted or at least relieved of the bitterness of pain – this I try to imagine as thinkable, attainable, not wholly out of the question.”

Hendrik Christian Andersen and Henry James

Hendrik Christian Andersen and Henry James

The legendarily good-looking poet Rupert Brooke was a guest at Lamb House and a beneficiary of James’ mentorship. He never married. His portrait now hangs in the hall.

Rupert Brooke's breathtaking beauty would never age. He died at age 27 of an infected mosquito bite.

Rupert Brooke’s breathtaking beauty would never age. He died at age 27 of an infected mosquito bite.

Burgess Noakes came to Lamb House as a houseboy in 1902. Soon, he was Henry James’ personal valet, and during the Great War, he was recalled from service so he could nurse James in his final days.

Burgess Noakes was first Henry James' houseboy, then his valet and butler, and finally his deathbed nurse.

Burgess Noakes was first Henry James’ houseboy, then his valet and butler, and finally his deathbed nurse.

The writer E. F. Benson, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, first visited Henry James at Lamb House in July 1900 when he looked like this:

E. F Benson followed in James' footsteps to the end

E. F Benson followed in James’ footsteps to the end

After James’ death, “Fred” Benson moved into Lamb House himself and became the second prolific writer to make it his working home. He even became mayor of Rye while living in his mentor’s former home. Benson also never married, but one of his special friends, pianist John Ellingham Brooks, moved to Capri after the Wilde trial and never came back.

I couldn’t help but notice all these images of young handsome men around Lamb House. The National Trust docent guide said that Henry James kept to himself, that there wasn’t much proof of anything, that there were reports of people coming to visit him and he’d just sit there quietly without saying much.

I think that’s hogwash. This is clearly a case of a legacy being passed down between men who only had each other for mentorship and support.

Apr 182014

This is the cupboard under the stairs in Down House where Charles Darwin stored the evidence of his explosive theory for nearly two decades. This is the cupboard under the stairs where he hid his true genius until, one day in June 1858, a young scientist with a similar idea scared him into finally going public. This is the cupboard under the stairs where his world-changing gift might have been forgotten if he’d let himself continue to fear it.

Cupboard at Down House

He studied barnacles. He dissected pigeons. He planted seeds. Anything to avoid unleashing his true gift to the world.

His papers were hidden in an evelope marked “Only to be opened in the enent of my death.”

The cupboard was also filled with croquet equipment, parasols, and other lawn toys. In 1896, after the death of his widow Emma, the original manuscripts of his seminal On the Origin of Species were discovered in this cupboard. They had his children’s doodles on them. They had used the papers as scrap.

Jan 072014

As of today, both of my two current Frommer’s guides are officially released! One came out in November, and one was just released.

For your health’s sake, I do not recommend writing two entire 256-page books at once.

But I do recommend getting one or both. Also for your health’s sake. They’re hyper-cheap ($8 to $9—less than a movie!), smarter than they have to be, and besides, I love you and I support you in all you do, my sweet angel.

#fabulous #unusual #dreamstuff. Click ‘em to buy ‘em.

Frommer's EasyGuide to Walt Disney World & Orlando 2014, by Jason Cochran

Frommer’s 2014 EasyGuide to Walt Disney World & Orlando, by Jason Cochran


Frommer's EasyGuide to London 2014, by Jason Cochran

Frommer’s EasyGuide 2014 to London, by Jason Cochran

Continue reading »

Jan 042014
Leaflet at James Buchanan's home takes pains to cast him as a family man and uniter

Leaflet at James Buchanan’s home takes pains to cast him as a family man and uniter

Let it never be forgotten that James Buchanan was demonstratively one of the worst presidents the United States has ever had. We fell apart on his watch. He was number fifteen, which would also be his score out of a hundred.

You can debate certain things about Buchanan, but some things are incontrovertible. Fort Sumter was seized while he was in charge, and with plenty of warning, before Lincoln was inaugurated. Prior to that, he had permitted the arming of the South using federal arsenals; he allowed his Secretary of War to ship muskets and ordnance to the South even as the region rattled the sabers of secession. When the war broke out, that guy became a Confederate general. 

Other members of Buchanan’s cabinet also sided with the secessionists. In fact, his Secretary of Treasury headed up the body that created the Confederacy. He was pretty much its first president.

The Dred Scott decision came down upon his inauguration in 1857, and all hope for political compromise tumbled down with it. The country went on suicide watch but Buchanan all but shrugged as it pushed in the blade. He vetoed westward expansion if that expansion meant the new lands would ban slaves. Even as Kansans killed each other over whether their state should have slavery, he asked Congress to approve Kansas’ pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution, fracturing his own party. John Brown responded to all this by launching his raid on Harpers Ferry during the Buchanan presidency, and the resulting show trial and rapid execution gave national acrimony its most potent martyr.

America was a freight train rushing toward calamity, and Buchanan pretty much just waved an embroidered hanky at it as it roared down the tracks. Let’s not forget any of that.

We could. I mean, we forget a lot about James Buchanan.

We forget that he lived with another man for 13 years.

Yes, James Buchanan was very probably the first gay president, or the closest thing to it that the 19th century would allow. James Buchanan’s home, Wheatland, was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Today, it’s preserved as a museum dedicated to a president to whom very few people prefer to be dedicated. I paid a visit to see what they had to say about all this.

Continue reading »

Dec 312013

27151_10151576054439532_725188865_nPardon the silence. Lately I’ve come down with a case of omnisciencia.

It’s the debilitating state that develops when you try to keep up with everything that’s going on.

That’s my name for it. I invented it by combining the word omniscience, which is the state of knowing everything, with the suffix -ia, to do with afflictions.

My affliction has gone viral, but I know my word for it never will on because omniscience has too many letters in it for most people and Snapchat is easier to use than a dictionary.

But not caring if it goes viral happens to be the first step toward recovery.

Omnisciencia is a condition that leaves sufferers feeling like they’re always falling behind because they’re always being bombarded by things that are outside themselves. Twitter, Instagram, news, status updates, Buzzfeed listicles, Vines—they come tumbling (or Tumblring) in an incessant avalanche. It’s the gnawing anxiety you’re always missing something.

You opt in to an unattainable quest to keep tabs on everything the second you get online. Everyone else is constantly posting breaking news, having such fine meals, decrying bad service, snuggling in contented humblebrag with their new boyfriends, gushing bulletins about the things they’re doing and seeing and learning and the washboard abs that you don’t have—and everyone posts these things as an implied boast. They post partly to reassure themselves they have a handle on things, partly to feed their own omnisciencia, and partly to tell you that you ought to know about their universe, too.

It could be argued that it’s a form of weakness to feel the impulse to post every event and beautiful vision, to keep nothing just for yourself.

Continue reading »

Dec 172013

There I am: blond, thoughtfully labelled, and clamoring for fantasy at Walt Disney World

This year, I was honored to be asked by Arthur Frommer to write two new flagship guidebooks for his guidebook series. The first one, for London, was released two months ago, and is selling well on Amazon (that’s here). Now, my guide to Walt Disney World and Orlando comes out.

Walt Disney World is tied to me as few other things in my life are. We grew up together. We were born the same year, two and a half months apart. Through the mid-1970s, I was a Florida kid, so we went all the time. Some of my first memories as a toddler were being pushed on a stroller through the Magic Kingdom when it was brand new, collecting tickets to ride more rides, staying up late to see the Electrical Water Pageant, excitedly looking down on everything I dreamed about from the Skyway buckets. In those days, the trees were newly planted, so some of my most powerful childhood memories are of sweating in the searing, shadeless Disney sunshine, smeared with chocolate-covered frozen bananas, impatient for the faraway day I would finally be tall enough to ride Space Mountain.

I grew with it, visiting it the way you’d see a beloved aunt or a grandma, until the trees were tall and full. You could fairly say that although I have moved, changed jobs, and transformed many times over the years, Disney World has always waited. My family never kept houses or property, so Orlando is one of the only constants I have known. I understand what it means to children, and I understand what it wants to be.

Although it was a formative place for me as a child, and I will always appreciate how to interpret it on that level, I am now invited as a professional. Each time I return to cover it, I remember how lucky I am to have kept it as a place of continuity in my life. Now, it’s like getting paid to visit grandma. Continue reading »

Dec 042013

Theda Bara go boom: This woman would be a lot more famous today if they hadn’t blown up her movies in New Jersey

Early film was stored on nitrate stock that was ridiculously flammable. Seriously—just writing that sentence caused four more movies to go up in flames in 1924.

What that means is we will always be missing a huge portion of our history. Not just Hollywood history, either. We no longer have a copy of President McKinley’s ambulance leaving the Pan-American Exposition after he was shot in 1901. We don’t have the film version of The Great Gatsby made during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime.

Gone are newsreels, short subjects—anything that illuminates daily life from 1900 to 1930 and reminds us that people in the past were just as real as we are.

The studios didn’t care. Their concern was for future profits, not heritage, and there was no perceived commercial value in keeping movies around. America! We’ve lost a lot of our identity because our identiy couldn’t make us a buck.

Continue reading »

Nov 132013
World Trade Center under Construction

The new World Trade Center under construction in July 2013, taken from the deck of the Queen Mary 2

The designers of the new World Trade Center just won the right, assigned by an architects association, to call their building the tallest one in America.

They have built their antenna to a height of 1,776 feet, symbolizing the year the United States declared independence from Britain.

This is one of the most regrettable new facts about my city.

First, it’s like honoring World War Two by invoking Pearl Harbor. 1776 is when war was more or less declared and the slaughter commenced, not when the war started (that’s 1775) or when it ended and independence was truly asserted (that was in 1783). Celebrating the dawn of a bloody war, especially in a place like where something so dreadful happened, seems historically wrongheaded and blithely jingoistic. The victims deserve something a lot more pure and unpoliticized.

Second, rubbing your country’s heritage in the face of other nations is the kind of nationalistic hubris that helped make the original World Trade Center such a tempting target.

Last, and most important: The architects are fools. They say they chose a height of 1,776 to send a message to other countries about American freedom and resilience.

Except America, in its bristling exceptionalism, was one of the only nations to refuse to cooperate and assimilate with the rest of the planet and use the metric system. That 1,776 figure will nearly never be seen.

To the vast majority of the world, the new World Trade Center is simply 541 meters tall.

It gets worse: 541 AD marked the beginning of the Justinian Plague, one of the worst pandemics in history, a plague that wiped out as much as a quarter of Europe’s population and many historians agree doomed the Roman, Persian, and Byzantine Empires and ushered in the Dark Ages.

Way to go, Freedom Tower. Love that symbolism.